The medical director of the Minneapolis VA's network of community clinics, Dr. Michael Koopmeiners, says with Rice Lake open for business, the Minneapolis VA completes a years-long effort to ensure most veterans in its coverage area are no more than about 30-miles from a VA doctor's office.
"These clinics have been on the docket for several years and it's been somewhat frustrating for the veterans out in the Wisconsin area that it's taken a little bit of struggle to get these clinics going," Koopmeiners says. "I think for Minneapolis it completes our ring. It just a nice job of completing our goals of getting to the veterans."
Vets in Rice Lake have been closely following the process that's led to their clinic, according to the commander of the Rice Lake and Barron County American Legion posts, Jim Sanders.
"I lost track of the number of phone calls in the last three months," Sanders said in a telephone interview from the Rice Lake American Legion Club.
The VA clinic will save a lot of vets a lot time and money, Sanders says.
"We've been pushing for it for years because we always felt it was kind of dumb for these guys to travel these humongous miles," Sanders explained. "I would venture to say that these guys who are reluctant to go that far over there will probably get a lot better care and be seen a little bit more often.
“It's the best thing since sliced bread. I've already been there twice!”Hayward VA clinic user and Navy veteran Jim Gustafson
For younger veterans with jobs, the community-based clinics will make getting medical care much more feasible because it means they won't have to take time from work.
Like the seven other community-based clinics in the Minneapolis VA network, the Rice Lake office will offer a wide range of services. Vets can be seen for minor injuries and illnesses. They can also get follow-up care for serious conditions such as diabetes and heart disease. And there's mental health counseling.
Sanders, from the American Legion, says he and other Rice Lake area vets have plans to make the new VA clinic their own.
"We're furnishing the coffee pots, we're furnishing coffee, we're going to be furnishing cookies, so the guys won't be too bored sitting over there," Sanders says.
In June the VA opened a community-based clinic in Hayward, about an hour northeast of Rice Lake.
The VA says the Hayward clinic was supposed to be open two or three days a week, but it's now running Monday through Friday because of strong demand for health care among area veterans. Among those vets is Jim Gustafson who served in the Navy.
"It's the best thing since sliced bread," Gustafson says. "I've already been there twice."
Gustafson, 63-years-old, says he needs regular check-ups for his heart condition and his diabetes. He lives about 12 miles from the Hayward clinic. For him and other area veterans, having the local clinic means going to the doctor no longer involves a van ride to Minneapolis and a day-long commitment.
"I like Minneapolis but is was like, oh man you dread (it)-- because it's such a long day," Gustafson says.
Now that it's easier to get VA health care, Gustafson says he'll likely be going in more often rather putting off clinic visits because of the long-drive. That's exactly what the VA wants, according to Dr. Michael Koopmeiners.
"If we can get a veteran who has, let's say, congestive heart failure, to be seen on a more regular basis we know that that reduces hospital stays and that's a significant savings," says Koopmeiners. "So we know we can save money by providing good care upfront and helping the veteran stay healthy and preventing the secondary complications. The veteran wins and we win because our money goes farther to serve the vets."
In addition to the two new clinics in western Wisconsin, the Minneapolis VA is expanding most of its existing community-based clinics. There are also plans for a 9th clinic somewhere in the northwest metro area of the Twin Cities within the next year and a half.